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A Harmonic Emergence That Still Resonates

Culture: Changes in the local artistic community, social circles and the county at large underscore the venue's success--and its powerful influence.

September 01, 1996|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Ten years ago this month, the Orange County Performing Arts Center opened to huge fanfare and towering expectations.

Privately funded and operated, the lavish, $73-million, 3,000-seat center sprung up alongside prime donor Henry T. Segerstrom's South Coast Plaza mall, almost as though it were an adjunct. Offering a mix of imported and home-grown talent, the center--practically by default--quickly became the county's most powerful symbol of artistic ambition, social prestige, plutocratic largess and dedicated voluntarism.

"I could never have brought a Cecilia Bartoli to the Santa Ana High School auditorium, where we used to present our programs, and the Vienna Philharmonic would never have come," said Dean Corey, who heads the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which is bringing the orchestra to the center next season.

"The center has been a major catalyst for the county," continued Corey, on the phone from the Salzburg Music Festival in Austria, where he was scouting for other internationally renowned artists. "It hasn't just raised the perception of the arts, it's helping the county come of age as a community."

Roughly 1,200 of the center's supporters are expected to attend a 10th anniversary gala concert and celebration next Sunday. The top ticket price is $500; some tables at the post-concert dinner have sold for $5,000 to $50,000 each, a center spokesman says. The one-night event is expected to net $550,000.

The center not only continues to dwarf all other local arts institutions in size (annual revenue has grown from $13.3 million in 1987 to $21.8 million in 1995) but also is the most prominent regionally.

Giving immediate proof when it opened of its oft-proclaimed mission to become the premier presenter of dance on the West Coast, the center brought in the world's best ballet companies at enormous expense and, further, established itself as a major Southern California stop for international mega-stars and orchestras in classical music, as well as for touring Broadway shows. Meanwhile, it has provided a local opera company, a local orchestra and two local chorales with a place to perform and develop.

Douglas Rankin, president of the nearby $18-million Irvine Barclay Theatre, which opened five years later and which also presents dance, chamber music and theatrical events, calls the center a "phenomenal" success. "Orange County sort of expects its institutions to arrive on the scene full-blown. The center virtually did that.

"Its product has been good to excellent," continued Rankin, who is not usually effusive. "It increased the profile and influence of other arts organizations. It educated the audience. It brought in product that would not otherwise be here. And its ability to retain the loyalty of its fund-raisers is stunning."

Another observer, who occasionally bids for the same mega-stars as the center, also lauds its track record. "They're such a major organization that I don't think there's any competition out there for them," said Victor Gottesman, president of the 1,800-seat, city-financed Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, about 20 miles away in Los Angeles County.

"I think they have a more critical view of the artistic content of the programming than of the bottom line--although the bottom line is very important to them," Gottesman said.

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The center's impact on the artistic community in Orange County has been manifold.

Opera Pacific, for example, would not exist without the center. The company--which stages its productions of works from the standard repertory--started during the center's maiden season and, of all the local groups, is "the most critically tied to the emergence of the center," said David DiChiera, Opera Pacific's general director.

"You can't have an opera company without an opera house," he noted recently in a phone interview from Detroit (he also heads the Michigan Opera Theatre). "An orchestra or a chorale has much greater flexibility. They can play almost anywhere if they have the space. For opera you need a highly technical theater facility."

When Rodney Milnes, music critic of the Times of London, came in 1994 to review an Opera Pacific production of Wagner's "Die Walkure," he wrote of the center--which has a monumental facade of pink marble shaped like a modernist Roman arch, a plush interior of curved wood, thick carpets in the foyers and huge banks of mirrored glass: "This is the most exciting new opera house I have encountered in America."

The center has enabled the locally based Pacific Chorale to launch a choral festival that had been on its agenda for years but had been frustrated by the lack of an appropriate hall. Meanwhile, "artistically our organization has grown tremendously" in 10 years of performing at the center, said Julie Bussell, chorale executive director. "Most notably, the California Arts Council [a state funding agency] has rated us in its highest category for three years running. That hadn't happened before."

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